The big surprise news for Minnesota Twins fans was the firing of manager Ron “Gardy” Gardenhire on Monday. In some ways the move was not surprising — the Twins have endured some of their worst seasons in the last four years, starting in 2011 when they came only one game short of losing 100 games. Even Gardy himself seems to agree the move is a good one, telling reporters, “I think this is the right thing.”
Gardenhire coached the Twins under former manager, Tom Kelly, from 1991 to 2001 and became their manager in 2002. That year the Twins made it all the way to the ALCS by beating the Oakland A’s, only to lose to the Anaheim Angels in five games. Since that time, Gardy brought the Twins to the post-season five times, but lost each time in the ALDS.
The surprise is more that Terry Ryan, the Twins GM, actually made such a bold move.
It’s certainly a move some fans have been demanding for years. The perception of many is that Gardy, for all that he’s extremely well-liked, is just too old-school — even hide-bound — for modern baseball. Many have viewed his managerial actions as being too by the numbers and ignoring reality.
I know I’ve wondered about some of his decisions myself. I’m fairly new to the close study of baseball, so I’m no expert (I still can’t tell a slider from a cutter), but there have been times watching games I’ve thought, “Take him out; he’s out of gas!”
But Gardy often seems to wait until the pitcher has given up too many runs before taking action.
I’ve even wondered about his mind. As one ages, the mind slows down, even if you work to keep it sharp. As with muscles, (mental) exercise is crucial in maintaining (mental) strength and health. (As a great Jimmy Buffett song suggests, you should regularly use Mental Floss.)
My mom once said she thought she detected signs of my dad’s eventual collapse into Alzheimer’s decades before it became blatantly obvious his mind was going. I don’t mean to suggest Gardenhire is suffering from any such form of dementia, but sometimes his gruffness when questioned about his decisions seems emblematic of others I’ve known who did.
Or it could just be that he’s a stubborn old coot who has been unable to adapt to the changing ways of baseball.
The thing is, while the move is highly visible and fan-appeasing, I’m not sure it gets to the root of the Twins’ real woes. I’m not at all sure the miserable performance of the Twins over the last four years was entirely his doing or fully under his control. There’s an old saying about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear (specifically that you can’t).
My highly inexpert opinion has centered more on pitching coach, Rick Anderson. The Twins generally have good (or at least decent) fielding, and they’re fair-to-middling at the plate, but their pitching has been the major weak spot. (The new manager, whomever that is, will select the coaching staff going forward, so it’s very possible Anderson won’t be back.)
The problem is that the Twins persist in a pitching philosophy called “pitch to contact” as opposed to pitching for strike outs. The idea is allowing the batter to hit the ball and expecting defensive fielding to get the runner out.
But that doesn’t seem to work very well, at least not lately. Check out the Twins runs compared to the runs they give up over the last eight years:
Something has obviously gone very wrong in the last four years. In the first four years, the Twins were up 238 runs. In the last four, they’re down 552! Some combination of very bad pitching and/or very bad hitting is required to stink that much.
The question is whether it’s one or the other or both. A look at the pitching ERA (Earned Run Average) does show some decline in the last four years, but it doesn’t stand out to the degree the run differential does:
For the uninitiated, an ERA in the 3.00 range is acceptable, less is better (under 2.00 is really good; under 1.00 is ace-level). An ERA above 4.00 is awkward; above 5.00 is disastrous. (“SP” is Starting Pitchers, “BP” is Bull Pen, and “Team” combines the two.)
Here’s a look at their plate performance:
Again the difference between the first four years and the last four isn’t as stark as the run differential, but you see decline here as well. The bottom line seems to be that the Twins have just been a crappy team these last four years.
What remains to be seen is whether a new manager (and presumably at last some new coaches) really can make a difference. The thing is, the Twins did show definite signs of improvement this year, so if that continues next year, it might not have all that much to do with the change in management. It might just be the Twins finally climbing out of their hole.
So I have extremely mixed feelings about this. I almost (almost!) hope for another losing season just to make the point that what’s really at fault here is the GM and front office failing to put together a winning team.
But we really do need a winning season. It’s a “coincidence” remarked on by many that the Twins have stunk ever since they got their brand new ballpark, Target Field, in 2010.
And while it really is a beautiful venue, a common opinion is that the Metrodome gave the Twins a serious home field advantage. (That theory doesn’t really account for their successful year in 2010.)
The decline in the team’s fortunes is paralleled by a decline in Target Field attendance. The first year brought in capacity crowds, and the following year, 2011, wasn’t bad either. But attendance has slipped every year since:
Attendance is down over 30% since the place opened in 2010! The Twins claim the loss of hot dog sales isn’t the point, it’s all about losing games, but those two really are the same thing in most markets. (Cubs and Mets fans have their own special brand of loyalty for their typically hapless teams.)
And as a bonus, here’s (Cubs fan) Jimmy Buffett to play you out…